“Replacement Grandparent”

This is the fifth story in this summer’s online Flash Fiction series. You can read the entire series, and our Flash Fiction stories from previous years, here.

Lately, she had found herself too exhausted to fantasize about sex, let alone find the time and physical autonomy to have it with the person she was supposed to have sex with, who lay his long body beside her at night, often with a little sighing body in between them, as somehow they had got out of the habit of putting the baby in the crib. She sometimes said to him that the only time she felt a spark of desire was when they were out in the world, and they encountered an older couple taking care of their young grandchildren, children similar ages to their own. This became their private joke, which she didn’t repeat to others, knowing that others would most likely just find it inappropriate or sad. That’s my pornography, she would say. To watch an older man, relatively fit, at a kindergartener’s birthday party, just bending over and picking something up. Ooh, yeah, Grandpa, she would whisper privately to her spouse. That’s right. Pick up that empty juice box. Slowly, slowly. Yeah, put it in the garbage can. Ooh. That’s right. Do it. Do it. Sit in that chair. Get up from that chair. Oh, fuck, you can pick her up? Pick her up. Pick up that five-year-old body. And so on. The joke had an undercurrent of melancholy and exhaustion, like so much of what she was feeling lately. Her elderly father was alive, but he lived far away, or she lived far away from him, she imagined he’d say, and there was a division between them, even when he visited, which he hadn’t for a while, because of his failing health, and also because of what was going on in the world. When her father came to visit, he sat in a chair, which he didn’t do very well, as he often had to be helped out of it. He couldn’t stand for long periods of time, and, when she had given him the baby to hold, his first time meeting her, six months after she was born, he’d almost dropped her. Everyone she knew, it seemed, had parents who were often and actively present, who would come and stay for a while in a spare room—another miracle, the guest room—or who sometimes even moved in order to be closer to their children and their children’s children. They were present, for birthday parties, for trick-or-treating, even for dance classes, soccer, and school pickups, like strange apparitions of help and care. Despite her jokes about her fantasy, sometimes the physical proximity of these grandparents made her feel unbearably alienated, even as she enjoyed making small talk with them. They were, more often than not, impressed by her and her accomplishments, which was so different from both her father and her in-laws, who regarded her as significant only for having produced grandchildren, whom they did not make extraordinary efforts to see, because they all disliked the city, were convinced they’d be murdered in broad daylight upon entering it, because of what they’d seen on the news. It made sense to have children if you knew that you would have someone to support you. In evolutionary terms, it turned out, this was called the “grandmother theory”: having a grandmother to help with the children had been promoting longevity and survival all the way back to the hunter-gatherer days. There were articles, in the Health and Aging section of the paper, about how to stay fit as you got older so that you could be present for your grandchildren. There was something about this that irritated her, the idea that she was supposed to stay healthy and sharp enough so that, at the end of her life, she could again find herself picking up after young children, without any wage or recompense, in this future and speculative identity of grandmother. As she was complaining about this, her friend suggested that perhaps what she needed was a replacement grandparent. Although the friend said this in a joking way, she found herself thinking about, even fantasizing about, this idea. Since her mother had been dead for twenty years, could she somehow find a replacement grandmother? Many cultures had the practice of hiring a designated mourner; a replacement grandmother would be something like that. Could she find someone to care if the baby had had a fever for five days, and to ask questions, and to check in? She couldn’t afford to hire a babysitter, even occasionally, so how could she possibly afford a replacement grandmother? But that was the thing: it would have to be a volunteer position, or it wouldn’t work. It would have to be someone who took an interest in the ordinary repetitions of her day, and who found her children special. But, for it to work, that person would have to know her, have intimate knowledge of her history, know even what she herself had been like as a small child. Otherwise the performance of love and devotion would feel empty, or artificial, like the rehearsed gestures of mourning. What she was longing for, she realized, was a ghost. ♦

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